Most newcomers to Charlotte don’t know about Little Hardware. They are accustomed to the chain box stores that offer a regular staple of products. It is not until they have a pressing need or are discerning enough to hunt it up or come upon it by happenstance, that they find the absolute gem of a—well—hardware store.
Often referred to by comparison, practically no business in Charlotte is as old and continuously family-operated as Little. It sells hardware, of course, but much, much more.
Although he drives past other hardware stores to get there, Coleman Cagle shops at Little Hardware on South Mint Street near uptown Charlotte.
“They have virtually everything you need,” says Cagle. “And they carry the good stuff.”
On this particular trip, Cagle has purchased four padlocks and had them keyed to match. He touts the good service he finds at Little.
“Most places would tell you to come back the next day,” Cagle says. “At Little, it took me ten minutes max.”
Founded in 1922, Little Hardware Co. is a family-owned business which has built its reputation on two pillars: excellent customer service and an extensive inventory.
“We stock those ‘hard to find’ items,” says principal Alec Little. “And, if we don’t have it; we’ll get it.”
Alec’s cousin Gray Little adds, “We’ll go the extra mile to help the customer find a solution. If we have to send the customer somewhere else to get it, we’ll make sure they have it before we send the customer there.”
The Family Tradition: Adapting
The Little family business started in 1922 when A.J. Little, a bookkeeper for Auto Parts and Salvage Co., bought out his employer. He brought his family including his brother John D. Little into what was then an automobile-based business, selling car parts and gasoline as well as salvage on South Mint Street in uptown Charlotte.
In the 1930s, the Littles bought the store next door, Wilmore Hardware, knocking a hole in the wall to connect the two stores. From then on, the company began to focus more on hardware sales.
Right from the start, the Littles established their philosophy of customer service. Alec Little illustrates with an example: “During the depression, nails were scarce. When an allotment came in, Granddad (John Little Sr.) would only allow a certain number per customer. When one customer offered a large sum for the total shipment, Granddad turned him down. He wanted to watch out for everybody even though he could have made more money on the single sale.”
Over the following decades, the Littles showed a remarkable ability to adapt as times changed. They expanded the car salvage business into first a used car company and, later, a new car dealership, selling Pierce Arrows and Hudsons. They stopped selling gas when gas rationing was instituted during World War II.
In the 1960s, they acquired Doggett Lumber and started selling doors, locks, and a paint line. During the late ’40s and ’50s, they sold appliances including TVs and refrigerators, which they also delivered. During the ’60s and ’70s they sold gas log fireplaces, which they installed, and even toys, which they wrapped. One salesman, Hoover Nance, would even bring in extra eggs from his farm outside town to sell.
In 1972, the Littles bought the old Union Electric building at the corner of South Mint and West Bland Streets, and, in 1976, the next building on the South Mint Street block, the Rowe Corporation. By now, Little Hardware was part of the town center for a working class neighborhood and had secured its reputation as the store where you could get “practically anything.”
In the meantime, the third generation of Littles was growing up in and around Charlotte. Gray, Leslie and Nevan, the children of A.J. Little’s son Donald, grew up in Dilworth. They would join cousins Alec and Kearns for fun at “the river,” six acres with cabins on Lake Wylie that their grandfathers A.J. and John D. Sr. had leased and later bought. Some of this third generation also spent summers and holidays working in the hardware store.
“Little Hardware has always been the lifeblood of our family,” says Gray simply. “It is very personal to all of us.”
Today, seven members of the Little family are actively involved in the store’s operation. Douglas Little, son of John D. Sr. and father of Kearns, is the last of the second generation. He still comes into the office every day.
In addition to siblings Gray, Nevan and Leslie, and cousins Kearns and Alec, Alec’s son Kyle is also on the payroll. The second oldest of the fourth generation, Kyle worked in a law office for two years before joining the family firm. While the rest of the fourth generation are in the service or too young to predict their future, everyone has their eye on Nevan’s thirteen-year-old son Carter, who enjoys helping out in the stock room.
The Product Mix: Evolving
In 1986 a fire almost destroyed Little Hardware. The main showroom, retail area and offices all burned to the ground. That was a Friday. The following Monday, the store reopened for business out of its warehouse. A year later operations resumed in its new rebuilt facility at 1400 South Mint Street, where it currently resides.
In the 23 years since then, the Littles have continued to grow and adapt to the changes in the business climate. When downtown residents moved out to the suburbs, and, later, returned to condos and high-rises, the family changed the mix of products on its shelves to match its changing customer base. Gradually, the balance of business has shifted from the individual to commercial customers, creating today’s ratio of about 2/3 commercial and 1/3 individual.
An increased emphasis on power tools and related accessories led to the creation of a power tool repair center, headed by manager Paul Dawson. Dawson, formerly connected to Bosch’s regional repair facility, has watched the Little repair center grow from one employee to four and quadruple the space it fills in eight years. Today the staff repairs all the brands of power tools found on Little’s shelves.
“If we sell it; we repair it,” says Dawson quite simply.
The opening of the repair center led directly to an increase in power tool sales, as well as increased volume in the sales of blades, drill bits and related accessories.
“In the last four years, our power tool sales have had double-digit growth,” says Nevan. “We’ve developed new relationships with Milwaukee, Hitachi and Festool, for example, to go with existing relations with Bosch, DeWalt, Fein and Makita.”
The product mix at Little is constantly evolving.
“There are tons of items I grew up with that we don’t sell now,” says Gray. “But, even if we don’t carry it, we can order it for customers, which we do regularly.”
One product line is safety equipment for workers on the high-rise condos and office buildings going up uptown. Little carries the Falltech Roofers’ Kit along with all the harnesses and lanyards a contractor needs to protect workers requiring fall protection.
Little added more building materials to its inventory in the ’70s and ’80s. While the selection of lumber is limited to plywood and basic structural lumber like 2 x 4s and 2 x 6s, it has proven to be a profitable addition. Bagged concrete-related products have also proven to be profitable. Little receives a tractor trailer load each week and more and more contractors are having truckloads of bags sent directly to job sites.
“Listening to our customers is the key,” states Kearns. “They’ll tell us what they need, what works best and what doesn’t work as well. If we react to these conversations, we’ll have what they want when they come looking for it.”
The way in which Little does business is also evolving. Ten years ago virtually 100 percent of business was done across the counter. Today, Little has three outside salespersons who travel to the job sites outside the uptown area.
“In the past we depended on walk-in customers,” says Nevan. “As job sites began moving further and further away from uptown, we needed to find a way to reach customers who might not come in to the store on a regular basis.”
Little Hardware also has a delivery service to reach these widespread job sites. Two to five delivery trucks come and go from the store every day, responding to orders from both inside and outside sales. These deliveries are part of the Little service; there’s no charge for deliveries in the Charlotte area.
The Service: Unparalleled
While Little Hardware no longer sells the camping, boating, hunting and fishing equipment it did during the ’60s and ’70s, it is still a traditional hardware store in many ways. There’s still a display of pocket knives at the front entrance and you can still buy screws and nails by the piece. Most importantly, it has a dedicated and loyal staff that will help wire a light socket or find a washer for a leaky faucet set.
The Littles are proud of their dedicated employees, many of whom have longevity of 20 years or more. Many of the staff have established personal relationships with customers as well. They know each other’s names and sometimes see each other outside of the store, hunting or socializing together. The Littles says they encourage this atmosphere by respecting their employees’ abilities.
“We’re a family business and we treat our employees as if they were family, too,” says Alec. “We recognize their individual abilities and reward their contributions.”
Employees like Paul Dawson agree.
“This is a great place to work,” Dawson says, “These are good people. I feel free and uncrowded.”
When A.J. Little started his family in business 85 years ago, he could hardly have foreseen the role that Little Hardware would play in the development of Charlotte to this day. He can be credited for much of the family’s success for adopting a work ethic that valued personal service.
Through the years, the succeeding generations have supplied an uncanny talent for adapting their inventory to current customer needs. Little Hardware is proud of its reputation for excellent customer service and for helping customers locate those “hard to find” items. As a result, it has many satisfied repeat customers who wouldn’t shop anywhere else.
One such customer is Robert Wilson, who recently drove uptown from the Montclair neighbor to get a couple of window screens repaired.
“I’ve been coming here for 47 years,” Wilson said. “Anything I want, they usually have.”
Little Hardware has grown every year since the fire of 1986, although it showed a flat line last year and is down a little this year with the economic downturn affecting the construction industry. Nevertheless, the Little family is confident that 10 years from now, Little Hardware will be right where it is now, on South Mint Street, helping Charlotte as it expands.
“We’ll be doing what we do now, but doing it better,” asserts Gray.